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Between, Beneath, and Beyond


A conversation with Chitra Ganesh
By Jaret Vadera |
APRIL 4, 2017
Her Nuclear Waters, a work from Atlas, 2013
Jaret Vadera: So where does your story begin? Do you remember what first drew you to art? To making things? Was there a moment when you first decided you wanted to be an artist?

Chitra Ganesh: My story begins in New York in the mid 1970s. My first memories are of Sheepshead Bay, and a blackout during the Summer of Sam, and of the Bengali immigrant families who helped take care of me. I lived in Hyderabad for a year with my Masi and Mama, a very significant year for me.

One of the summers I spent in India I recall sitting in a auto (rickshaw), watching a gargantuan Bollywood poster being made. I was fascinated watching the process of this huge poster coming to life, and the men who were painting it. I remember being visually oriented from a very young age. I was drawn to the handmade, to the materiality, and rawness, of the human hand that touched a surface to create a representation of something else.

I also remember seeing Keith Haring’s chalk drawings on black poster paper all around the NYC subway, and putting my hand over a place that had already been smudged to see if this was indeed drawn with chalk. I couldn’t quite believe that something so striking, piercing, and wild could be made out of the same material used to explain addition and subtraction at school.

My first creative endeavour was teaching myself how to write in cursive, when I was five, from a book my mother had bought me. That and sewing, learning embroidery, drawing kolams with my grandmother. I came to realize later how these were gendered forms of creativity, thought of as women’s work, or craft. As an only child, it was helpful to have tools to create worlds upon worlds of my own. My parents encouraged this and signed me up for art classes when I was about six or seven. I learned to draw, and paint, and to work with pastels and color pencils.

The moment when I decided to be an artist?

It seems that it must have always been there. But it seems a bit hazy, because in my family, this kind of career trajectory was not meant to happen. It was not considered economically viable, like a bad trade for all of my family’s hard work. It was not something that anyone I knew growing up even dabbled in. My mother often reminded me that art was not a financially stable field to enter, but could be pursued as much as I wanted as a hobby.

In that way, much of my time was spent feeling like I wasn't really an artist, that I couldn't really be an artist. There was a vibrant scene of South Indian classical forms like carnatic music and bharatanatyam within our community, but these often felt disconnected from my own aesthetic experiences, referents, and aspirations.

In my final year of undergrad, I remember having an argument with one of my best friends who wanted to apply to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and suggested that I should also think about it. I reacted so strongly out of my deep frustration. I felt that this was an impossible career path for me. I thought this was an option for only wealthy folks or people from a family of artists, but never people like me. I decided to get a job teaching junior high school in Washington Heights and then continued to work in education with teens. My work and my personal life changed dramatically in 1998 when my mother passed away. After that I began making paintings in my apartment, and transitioned to teaching part-time.

Around the same time, I met artist Jaishri Abichandani, DJ Rekha, and many other inspiring women from the South Asian Women's Creative Collective. It was an eye opening experience for me to meet other South Asians who were interested in the arts, some of whom pursued them professionally already. We began to create exhibition opportunities for ourselves and to show our work together. It was a vibrant time in the late 1990s in New York City, and I was part of an incredibly progressive desi community that included organizations such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, and Youth Solidarity Summer.

It was around this time that I decided to go to graduate school. It was a decision to invest time and space in myself for myself, and to see what would happen if I were to focus and take my artwork more seriously. After my mother’s passing, the feeling that life is indeed very short motivated me to take leaps which might have otherwise taken much longer.
Girls With Skulls, 1999, 48 x 66”, acrylic on canvas
JV: That decision is an important one. To own it, focus, experiment, and then see what happens. I feel that being an artist is as much an exercise of will as it is about anything else. How was your experience in graduate school? Academia can be such a nightmare for people of color. At least it was for me. I would imagine that it would've been a shock after coming from the art and activist desi community in New York in the 90s?

CG: Yes, will, persistence, patience and faith. Graduate school was difficult, complicated, and in retrospect, rewarding. It was a huge transition in so many ways. I was coming from a liberal arts background where I focused on semiotics, feminism, post-coloniality, poetry, and translation. I was already out of school for a few years, working as an English and Social Studies teacher. In Columbia’s MFA program, some of my peers were already thinking about the market, and had an uninterrogated notion of art history that was primarily Eurocentric.

I still didn't think I could actually be an artist. I didn't relate to the broader and more exclusionary aspects of my field, to the economies of high art, and the lack of diversity in contemporary art. Partly because I was involved in a number of progressive communities in NYC that were so supportive, affirming and rewarding.

Attempts to find images that reflected my subjectivity in mainstream art and culture often meant reckoning with the anthropological colonial lens that prevails in both the selection and contextualization of art objects, alongside disturbing mass mediated representations of South Asian subjects circulated in the United States. The reception that my work got from some of my peers and graduate school faculty made me realize how important it was for me to articulate my own thoughts and approaches to object making, and the cultural histories that informed them. That said, there were a few professors who were incredibly supportive and taught me a great deal-- both in terms of broader approach and in terms of my own painting and drawing based practice.

But South Asian cultural histories, art histories, and contemporary art were altogether absent from my curriculum. I took some classes in anthropology and South Asian studies which were very helpful to fill in some of these gaps.
The Awakening, C-print, 2004, 15 x 24"
JV: I had a similar experience. I had to leave the art and art history departments to be able to see myself. The absences of our histories can be oppressive. Moving between “different worlds” we become really adept at code-switching, at shape-shifting. I feel like this comes out in your work. In your digital collages, you seriously play with visual languages, signifiers, and historical narratives to create whole new spaces, whole new worlds. Worlds between worlds. Between and beyond. One could draw relationships between your work and diasporic and/or queer spaces. In this series are you revealing narratives suppressed by official histories or are you are reimagining them? Is queer, as a frame, or queering as a strategy, interesting or useful to you?

CG: Yes, the absence of our aesthetic histories from the American pedagogical frames in which we are both trained is definitely one of the erasures I’ve had to navigate. At Brown, I remember being very excited to take an Asian art history course. Bringing my focus on semiotics and contemporary theory, I imagined the would include the work of postcolonial visual thinkers like John Akomfrah, progressive artists like Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar, or even movies like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. On the first day I realized that Asian in this class basically meant China, with a bit of Japan in there. The art we were to study was beautiful in its own right, but never moved beyond the 18th century. I remember trying to speak to the professor after class to seek suggestions about my interests and feeling frustrated that I didn’t have the language to explain any of this to her.

On one hand, as artists and visually engaged people, we are struck by an absence of diversity in museum and institutional spaces. But in the domain of media images that circulate widely, a different kind of erasure is enabled by an instrumental imaging of South Asian female subjectivity. I am thinking here of images like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, which was on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. Interestingly McCurry’s picture, and the projections which the young photographer placed onto the body of an unknown brown girl, were deconstructed by the subject of the photograph herself years later. Sharbat Gul was found, seventeen years later, in 2002, and it was clear from interviews and pictures that she was angry about her image being used and seen without her knowledge or permission.
Left: Photograph of Sharbat Gul, “Afghan girl” by Steve McCurry on cover of National Geographic 1985
Right: Time Magazine August 2010 cover featuring Bibi Aisha
Visual regimes of sensationalist photojournalism in relation to South Asian bodies and subjects are still intertwined with racist underpinnings, anthropological bias, and an imperial savior complex. Take for example another instantiation of a similar iconography generated almost 25 years later in 2010.

The 2010 Time Magazine cover was more openly critiqued during its circulation. It is a justification of US intervention in Afghanistan, once again invoking a brown skinned female body to map geopolitical conflict, and manufacture a need for military intervention under the aegis of rescue. Such disturbing repetitions, both in national mainstream American media, as well as within children’s stories, official histories, fairy tales and more, require resistance, through the proliferation of alternate narratives that push beyond the mind-numbing repetition of stereotypical signifiers.

Your questions around shape-shifting are really evocative. Within the mainstream contemporary art dialogue my work was initially apprehended as first and foremost as Indian, in part because the global art market generally classifies non-white artists primarily within regional or racially marked frames. I experience more freedom and complexity of interpretation within a queer, or queering framework, and also through exhibiting my work in India.
Atlas, 2013, archival chromogenic print, 70 x 52"
Diaspora as a frame is less useful to me now. Diaspora is the dispersion of a population from its originary location for a myriad of reasons, be it war, asylum, immigration, emigration, forced or voluntary displacement. Earlier articulations of South Asian diaspora were tied to nostalgia and longing, and became a way in which narratives of the homeland or home were often frozen in time in a diasporic subject’s imaginary. I realized the limitations of this model as I began traveling to India more regularly as an adult.

My interest in working with Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics initially came from reexamining, with great fondness and curiosity, a body of literature and the particular visual language and grammar of comics. I was interested in the palette, line quality, anatomy, and colors in both Indian and American comics from the 1960s and 1970s. The queering of the comic frame was not a preconceived intention before beginning my comic work, but rather it grew out of exploring and sitting with the material almost 20 years after having first encountered it.
Personal collection of Amar Chitra Katha comics
Rereading these stories, I realized that ACK, like many other folk tales and fairy tales, instill specific prescriptive behaviors lodged and disseminated in stories that are visually compelling with engaging narrative structures. As with a Grimm’s fairy tale, a greek myth, and many stories, I began to notice a few narrative commonalities – how women were often introduced within both small stories and epic myths as the wife, mother, sister, or daughter of…, and more often than not in need of completion or rescue by a heroic male character. Sleeping beauty, Cinderella, Draupadi, and Meera are just a few examples that come to mind. This wasn’t the case unilaterally with ACK’s stories. There were also comics such as the Rani of Jhansi, or the story of Mahatma Gandhi, but nonetheless such patterns stood out to me. I began thinking about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, and other ways in which narrative resolution or happily ever after did not always have to be fulfilled. I was interested in the ways that stories from the Amar Chitra Katha and the collective memory bank of beautiful images that are imprinted early on in our childhood minds, could be liberated from this story structure. I suppose in this way there is a queering that happens, which is not simply about the insertion, or substitution of queer desires and alternative resolutions to a normative patriarchy, but also in questioning the arc of a story itself. In this way I combine text and images in my comics is more inspired by surrealist writing and experimental fiction than the direct relationship between image and text in traditional comics.
The Mystery Kept Howling at Me, from Tales of Amnesia, dimensions variable 2002/2007
JV: I distinctly remember the smell of sandalwood as my father would open his suitcase after returning from trips from India. I knew he was always hiding some comics in there somewhere. I’m excited to hear you bring up the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories. I used to devour them, along with a parallel series called “Time Machine”. It resonates with me as a strategy. Different ways to enter a work, move through it, and multiple ways to leave, multiple stories to take away. How do we navigate and resist the hetero-patriarchal-right-wing-religio-nationalist-propaganda that is interwoven with the telling of our histories, of our stories? I think you offer a poetic way out, and through. Floating signifiers, fictional narratives, serious play, that are actually closer to the real, multiple here’s that we occupy. A lot of your work seems inextricably linked with or comes out of a response to specific narratives or omissions in different archives. You often excavate, intervene, reimagine, and reveal. Can you talk about how you think about archives and your relationship to them?

CG: I love this set of images that you bring to my mind. I also attach potent affective memories to reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, to the smell of books and musty storerooms during summer vacations in India that coincided with the monsoon season in Jamshedpur, Calcutta and Hyderabad. I would spend day after rainy day reading these comics on my own while waiting for my cousins to come home from school. I love that we have shared affinities as contemporary artists who navigate multiple narratives as a point of departure to imagine new possibilities, and that we both grew up reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series! Beyond that, I love how you connect these very early reading practices to current strategies for creating work.
Alongside my comic works, I also work on Index of the Disappeared with Mariam Ghani, a long-term archivally based collaboration. Even the sculptural materials in my wall drawings consider the idea that there are unique references that each viewer brings when experiencing an artwork. In my use of materials such as sofa covers and plastic flowers that might be found in immigrant homes, I hope to activate these shared connections and allow for new ways to enter work that often has complex and “unusual” subject matter.
Divine Horsemen, 2010, detail of 14 x 70’ installation across 4 walls, Chitra Ganesh with Simone Leigh, Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University
My relationship to archives? What a boundless question. From as far back as I can remember, I was always puzzled by visual absences. The dissonance between the concerns within the private sphere of our home, community parties, and neighborhoods where I lived such as Hollis, Queens, and Park Slope, Brooklyn of the 1980s were very much at odds with the visual representations readily available in American popular culture. I think a lot about creating work generated by the idea of archiving around erasures. It is a way to allow untold stories to rise to the surface and trigger the viewer to reconsider familiar ones. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t seeking images, signs, cracks of possibility, and visual evidence of desi histories and art. The erasures I encountered continually reiterated how little value contemporary South Asian experience had within the annals of American history, museums, galleries, television, art monographs, and popular music. At the time of course, I didn’t have the language for any of this. It is something I dedicated a significant amount of time to thinking about within my art practice and with my colleagues and artistic communities.

The idea of an archive is often received as a stable entity – records in a library, primary documents in official archives, in which the objects in the archive reflect some kind of essential and objective truth. When we revisit unofficial and more personally inflected archival forms, though, such as family photo albums, scrap books, etc, one can see much more of the decision making process that goes into deciding what ends up in the archive. I’ve always wondered what goes missing, and why. Who was that great uncle who immigrated to Malaysia, who was absent from all the photos? Why did he never stay in touch? What about that very close family friend who one day disappeared? Who many years later I learned left home was dating a black man? The denial of our community’s anti-black racism was articulated through these absences and silences. These kinds of personal questions that I asked about erasures when I was younger were brought to bear on institutional frameworks, and political structures in my art practice and political engagement.

Index of the Disappeared, my long term collaboration with Mariam Ghani active since 2004, is rooted in notion of archiving around absence and erasure. In the weeks and months after 9/11, we were confronted daily with missing flyers and commemorative tributes all over New York City to those who lost their lives in the attack. As time went on, developments such as the Patriot Act, the institutionalization of American exceptionalism, and a rise in Islamophobia began to crystallize. This happened in conjunction with my own experience of hearing in parallel about disappearances of people within our community. Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, the lawyers and activists who were supporting them, and neighboring communities being detained, profiled, interrogated, deported, and in some cases permanently disappeared through death via neglect in detention and holding facilities. Of course, these threats of erasure continue in our current political environment with the resurgence of a much more aggressive ICE presence and mass deportations in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the country.
How do we see the Disappeared, Index of the Disappeared [Chitra Ganesh + Mariam Ghani], 2004. window installation and video, dimensions variable, White Box, New York
We realized that there was a story around 9/11 that was absent from the official record, erasures which we felt urgently needed to be probed and explored via our art practice. Bodies were being obscured from public view – physically disappeared via unlawful detentions, special registration, surveillance and mass deportation, and then disappeared once again in the language of the law, through practices like redaction.
Just Off the Bagram Road, from AfterLives of Blacksites, 28 x 42 inches, 2016. Index of the Disappeared [Chitra Ganesh + Mariam Ghani]
Aerial view of area off the road to Bagram, just before the plain that lies before the airbase and prison, juxtaposed with redactions from sections of the 2014 SSCI “Torture Report” referring to CIA detention operations in Afghanistan, and a diagram of the Tor Jail taken from an Amnesty International report and based on the testimony of former prisoners. The exact location of the Tor Jail is still unknown (and the building itself has reportedly been demolished) but most agree that it was just outside Bagram. Newly declassified documents are more likely to be redacted in white than black, as the government believes it is more difficult to extract the redacted information from the document using predictive algorithms when redactions are white on white.

It is through fragments of conversations and the prisoners’ voices that allowed the architectural plan seen above to surface. It was visualized not from blueprints, or legal documents, but through the call and response communication between prisoners who listened for the number and distance of voices within absolute darkness and constant solitary confinement. So my interest in archives comes from rendering visible what remains missing, unknown, untold. I am interested in centering characters, moments, and narrative arcs that are consistently relegated to the margins. This is part of what makes the work that the South Asian American Digital Archive does, and the repository of images and documents it has accumulated over the last several years such a valuable resource for artists like myself and the other Fellows who are exploring and responding to SAADA’s fragments and bodies of information via their own artistic practice.

Ok, for my last question, do you have any advice for younger artists just starting out?

Live within your means, go as deep as you can when you are making your work, and know that there are numerous structural, historical and market based forces that converge to create an artist’s position in the world. Chances are, the challenges, struggles, and questions you wrestle with all have a precedent. Read about other artists’ lives and study the evolution of their work. Try to stay in conversation with like-minded peers and colleagues that can both support and challenge you. Have intergenerational conversations, and friends who work outside of the arts. Something it took me a long time to understand was that certain roadblocks and tensions I experienced were not about me, but were structural. Know there is a precarity and balancing act inherent to most artists’ lives no matter how smooth or easy it may look from the outside. Think of making art like a long distance runner, and let your work unfold at its own pace.
Jaret Vadera is an interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer who lives and works between New York, Toronto, and India. Through his work, Vadera explores how different social, technological, and cognitive processes shape and control the ways that we see the worlds around and within us.

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